Written and directed by Bo Burnham, Eighth Grade follows the story of Kayla (Elsie Fisher), a pre-teen girl in the final week before her middle school graduation. Looking forward to high school in the fall, Kayla is caught between who she was and who she wants to be. As her school year comes to a close, she must attempt to find herself in the midst of adolescence without losing herself in the process.
Despite being written by a man in his late 20s, Eighth Grade may be one of the most honest portrayals of teen life that we have seen in years. Every one of Burnham’s characters feels authentic, from Elsie’s YouTube videos to her father’s inability to speak her language. (Incidentally, to create Elsie’s voice, Burnham spent a great deal of time just listening to how pre-teens speak online, including their vocables and pauses.) Actress Elsie Fisher (Despicable Me) brings Kayla to life, portraying her with earnestness and awkwardness. Kayla isn’t merely any young person. She could very easily be any person, as she struggles to find herself in a world that seems unfriendly and foreign to her. In other words, though a 13 years old girl, her journey feels familiar to all of us.
The film is also an exploration of how we communicate with one another, revealing a world where social networking is neither good nor evil. Rather, it’s just the way things are. For Elsie, YouTube and Instagram are simply how she presents herself to the world. On the one hand, while she fakes ‘woke up like this’ photos, she also has a channel devoted to speaking words of encouragement to others in her experience. It’s not sensationalized or demonized. It just is.
Of course, in doing so, Eighth Grade is also a poignant piece about how we communicate with one another and the struggle to do so between generations. Without passing judgment, it reveals the differences and challenges in how we connect with one another and the world. Elsie’s father, for instance, is clearly feeling alienated from his daughter. She keeps up emotional walls and tells half stories regarding her day. Still, he continues to love her and offer the support that she needs, despite their shortcomings in communication. As such, the film serves as an example of how to break down some of these generational barriers. (Interestingly, the film even reminds us that 3-4 year age difference can feel like an entirely different generation as well.) No, we can’t always relate to one another’s experiences… but we can listen humbly and love unconditionally.
In the end, Eighth Grade isn’t just a film for parents and teens. It’s for us all. This is a story and speaks to anyone who has ever felt lost and overwhelmed by our circumstances. It is beautiful, honest and speaks to the power of authenticity. In short, it is a love letter to every generation.